Let’s set the stage:
It’s July 2005. FC3, the largest tournament of all time (with a whopping 186 entrants!), has just concluded, and Ken has once again defended his title of Melee Champion, beating players from all over the nation who showed up to compete. It’s interesting to look at the landscape of the competitive scene at the time:
While today, at any given Major, we can expect anyone from a group of 4-5 top players to take the win, Ken’s dominance at this time was unchallenged. His tournament wins were more or less guaranteed in this era, often with 3-0s or 3-1s from the Winner’s side.
That’s why people were excited about the news that Captain Jack, the famous top Japanese player, had invited Ken and Isai to stay with him in Japan and attend the Jack Garden Tournament. It would be one of the few times the top players from both West Japan (Captain Jack, Masashi, Aniki) and East Japan (Mikael, Rain, Korius) would all be together in the same place to compete. Many of us were eager to see which of the top Japanese players would be able to take on Ken: would it be Masashi, the cerebral Fox player who Captain Jack himself had once lauded as the best player in the world, or would it be Mikael, the mysterious Peach player from East Japan who had been rumored to have claimed himself to be better than Ken?
It’s hard for those new to the competitive smash scene to imagine the lack of immediate footage in 2005–there was no Twitch, YouTube was barely half a year old–and so those of us eager for updates waited on Smashboards, hitting the refresh key, and hoping for a post to come through.
And then it came. (Unfortunately, this writer looked for almost 2 hours for some archive or record of the original Smashboards post, with no luck…)
I remember seeing the post as if it were yesterday–Unknownforce, who traveled with Ken and Isai to Japan, made a short but earthshaking post on Smashboards one night:
He said that they had found the best Falco player in the world–that he was by FAR the most technical player anyone had ever seen–that he had taken Ken to the brink, to Game 6 in a Best of 7, completely demolishing every other player on his way to Grand Finals–and that he was only 13 years old. But most excitingly of all, he said that the matches were recorded, and that they would be online once they returned to the USA.
It completely blew up Smashboards–everyone was weighing in. People wondered what “the most technical Falco” looked like. Some were skeptical, doubting that a 13 year old could have better mindgames than the strongest USA Falco players like PC Chris. Others wondered if there were other Bombsoldiers out there, hermits who had mastered the game on their own in secret. But mostly, everyone was holding their breath in anticipation for the videos, which had been promised to blow our minds and change the way we thought about Melee forever. Many of us wondered: “How much better could he really be?”
These days, we’re used to the blindingly-fast movement and combo games of players like Westballz, and the clean and calculated execution of players like PPMD–but it helps to get a sense of what a top Falco from 2005 looked like. The clips below are from the FC3 Crew Battle–the few clips I could find of Falco pre-August 2005. To illustrate my point I picked out specific combo strings that start from shine versus a Fox opponent to show what a typical Top Player Falco’s punish game looked like:
From a numerical standpoint, these combos are clocking in at roughly 40%–pretty weak compared to the 80%+ combos or 0-deaths of today’s top Falco players. But just from a purely visual standpoint, the difference is obvious–note how, when the combos end at the ~40% mark, the Falcos seem unsure of how to follow up–you can feel the “stutter” and “start-and-stop” nature of their punish game. They lack the smoothness and confidence of even mid-level Falcos today, who could 0-death a Fox on Final Destination in their sleep. It’s almost amusing to think about now, but to the 2005 community, the Falcos above represented the highest level of Falco play. Nobody knew any better.
When the videos were released, most of us went straight for the Grand Finals set–we wanted to see how this Falco would do against Ken, the undisputed King of Smash, the best player in the world, as far as we knew… And we saw this:
Did this 13-year old kid just 2 stock Ken?
Here was a Falco that was moving more quickly and more fluidly than any Falco we had ever seen, performing 70-80% combos that looked inescapable, with a sort of nonstop aggression that gave the opponent no room to breathe. We thought we were looking into the future. Indeed, 10 years later, it really feels like Bombsoldier’s level of technical prowess and combo ability belongs more to this era than the one he came from:
Everybody immediately consumed every single Bombsoldier video from that tournament. Almost overnight, Smasher “masterwumpus” made the combo video Soldier of Fortune, which runs for 8 minutes 48 seconds–astonishing once you realize that the footage is from no more than 4 sets from that tournament–and an instant classic was created.
For many people, Bombsoldier had sparked a new idea–the idea that it was possible to destroy your opponent’s stock from a single hit, as long as you knew the right option, and were technical enough to pull it off. This ran counter to the prevailing idea of the time, which favored strong “mindgames” over everything else, and it ushered in a new generation of players who focused obsessively on perfecting their tech skill and their ability to combo the opponent for an entire stock. While we can’t say for sure, I’d wager that the term “zero to death” came into being shortly after JGT, as a direct result of Bombsoldier’s play.
And while Bombsoldier was surely a technical master for his time, he was also incredibly innovative, either inventing or at least popularizing a ton of new technology:
Falco’s mid-length Illusion shorten
Waveshine turnaround ledgegrab
Using laser as a combo extender when opponents DI too far away
At this point, one may wonder–what happened to Bombsoldier? Why didn’t he go on to become one of the top players, and why doesn’t he have a Documentary episode?
Unfortunately, after the Jack Garden Tournament, very little was heard from Bombsoldier, aside from the occasional video from Japan (his technical G&W secondary inspired quite a few people, actually). Then, finally, in 2007, Ken invited Bombsoldier and his other brother DISK to Zero Challenge 3 (OC3), one of the premiere tournaments that year (and a historical tournament for many other reasons). Here are the results–again, a fun snapshot of the times (with some familiar faces):
In any other context, Bombsoldier’s performance would have been extremely impressive, but expectations were perhaps unreasonably high. He ended up being knocked into Loser’s bracket by Drephen, and then knocked out of the tournament by Forward–both very respectable losses. More impressively, he placed 2nd in teams with Ken, ultimately losing to Isai and The King, but beating top teams such as SilentSpectre/Tang and Mew2King/ChuDat.
Then came 2008, and with the release of Brawl and the beginning of what some call the “Dark Ages” of Melee, Bombsoldier generally fell out of the public discourse. But there was no mistaking it–his play from that tournament in 2005 had inspired and influenced an entire generation of players; players like Zhu, who names Bombsoldier as one of his “greatest inspirations.” Even now, Mango will still lovingly refer to Falco’s Shine -> Up-B combo finisher as “the Bombsoldier” in his commentary, before bursting into “Bombs Over Baghdad”–the song that, for many, was and still is Bombsoldier’s anthem.
Of course, the ultimate point of all this is not to say that Bombsoldier deserved a place in the Documentary, or that he should be considered one of the Old Gods. Rather, he occupies a rather unique space in Melee’s history–one of a technical revolutionary. People didn’t care that he ultimately lost to Ken at the Jack Garden Tournament–what mattered was that his play represented a level of speed, precision, and optimization that was so far above his contemporaries that it looked as though he were playing a different character entirely. It changed the way people thought about Falco, about their own characters, and it redefined what people believed to be the “skill ceiling” for Melee. There’s only one other player I can think of who made a similar impact, and that is Armada, when he unveiled his Peach for the first time in the USA at Genesis 1. That story is for another time…
Author’s note: I do want to say that ultimately, this story was told from the perspective of someone who was just following the smash scene and playing a ton of Melee at the time. If you enjoyed this brief look into Melee history, be ready to check out the Bombsoldier segment of Last Stock Legends when it releases, where Toph will tell the story from the perspective of the Japanese Melee community and give a lot more insight into the actual personalities at play–for example, we’ll actually get to meet Bombsoldier! I’m very excited for that.